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Sound Science May Be An Unsound Strategy?

This week, I attended a roundtable discussion at the National Western Stock Show [3] where a panelist I respect tremendously made a very eloquent case that the industry must use and promote sound science in confronting the myriad of issues we face. She used a local example in Colorado, where nitrogen deposition in the Rocky Mountain National Park has been increasing. The science being applied in this issue was producing results damning to agriculture, but it turned out that the science was so bogus that the results were almost meaningless and even misleading.

The scientists had determined what was “controllable,” with consumer vehicle and urban sources not being among them; so those factors were excluded from the study as potential contributors of nitrogen. That left agriculture as essentially the only significant variable being considered, thus earning all the credit for the problem. In reality, agriculture has very little to do with the problem.

Of course, my friend is right – the activists and our opponents have become very adept at creating pseudo-science, where the results are predetermined and the study is designed to “prove” the desired results.

Our industry has always taken great pride in using and promoting sound science [4]. It’s part of our code. As with trade, we have long argued: “Let’s have a level playing field and let the results land where they may.” I have also always believed that sound science was the best approach, but when one looks back at the result of this policy, maybe it’s not so sound of a choice [5].

People have become so accustomed today to biased and/or bogus science [6] that they’ve almost come to expect it. It sounds cynical but, whether you’re referring to our elected officials, our media, or even our scientists, we expect them to be biased and manipulative. The result is that many folks tend to believe that the truth resides in the middle area of two opposing views.

For agriculture, it means that when we start from an unbiased position, the compromise we find ourselves engaged in is almost always slanted toward the position of our opponents. We’ve seen this time and again in the issues of environment, animal welfare, etc. A great example is on the economic front, where populist rhetoric – based on a whole host of distorted facts – has forced the industry away from good, sound economic principles in a wide array of areas.

The principle of adhering to sound science is a good one, but it assumes that the other side is dedicated to the principle, too. It also assumes that decision makers and the public really care about truth and have the capability to distinguish between good science and bogus science.

The reality is that sound science for most people is the science that most closely aligns with the outcome they seek. While all of my good friends in academia will cringe at this statement, sound science is a concept that doesn’t exist when it comes to issues influenced by public policy or a particular activist agenda.

From economics to global warming, science has become a tool to help manipulate the masses. Certainly, from an industry perspective, we still need and should rely on true science. However, when it comes to dealing with activist groups driven toward predetermined outcomes [7], the best strategy might be to produce as much bogus science as they do. That way, the middle ground might be closer to where truly sound science might have led us to begin with.